Bucky Barnes: The Victim of Marvel’s Queerbaiting Problem

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Derek Wong, Staff Writer, Co-Editor in-Chief

By now, you’ve probably heard about The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the new show premiering on Disney+ (and if you haven’t, please go watch the show). It holds the record for the highest premiere on the platform and a 96% Rotten Tomatoes rating, making it one of the highest-rated Marvel offerings on Rotten Tomatoes (as of April 9th). With four out of six episodes already out, we dived into deeper topics that Marvel has previously glossed over: dealing with trauma and institutional racism. Yet, as Marvel tackled these very important and relevant topics, it managed to add one more problem to the table: queerbaiting.

If you don’t know, queerbaiting (see also: queercoding) is when a piece of work, whether intentionally or not, has elements that hint at, but never explicitly depict, an LGBTQ+ relationship. Basically, a pair of characters act in ways that hint at romantic intentions but are often never further explored. For LGBTQ+ fans of a certain piece of work, this pseudo-representation is not only frustrating but also dangerous as often, such elements are portrayed as stereotypes for the sake of dramatic effect or to advance the plotline.

Bucky Barnes and Steve Rogers in ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’

Marvel hasn’t had the best history with queer representation (see: the outrage behind 2019’s Endgame where they featured the first on-screen queer character…), and there is a handful of characters that could be interpreted as queer, but none more so than Bucky Barnes. Ever since the first Captain America movie, The First Avenger, James Buchanan Barnes, a.k.a. Bucky, has been speculated to be queer, primarily because of his very intimate relationship with Steve Rogers. Often, their dialogue and relationship dynamics border tropes often used in romance movies; a few examples include the “love triangle” trope between him, Steve, and Peggy Carter (Steve’s main love interest), Steve breaking through Bucky’s brainwashing in Captain America: The Winter Soldier being synonymous to the “true love’s kiss” trope, and the fact that Steve was willing to go all Bonnie and Clyde to save his best friend from international outrage in Captain America: Civil War. Yes, you can definitely argue that this is a wonderful depiction of the power of friendship, but it is HEAVILY COINCIDENTAL that many of these tropes found between Bucky and Steve just happened to be ones commonly used in romance stories. It’s no wonder that LGBTQ+ fans latch onto Bucky like a barnacle.

Cinematic parallels? (Top: Anakin and Padme from ‘Star Wars: The Attack of the Clones’. Bottom: Sam and Bucky in “The Star-Spangled Man,” episode 2 of ‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’)

Now, these earlier depictions of Bucky being potentially LGBTQ+ were a little more subtle, relying solely on dialogue and character dynamics. But then we have…The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which upped the amplitude just a bit. Throughout the promotion of the show, the characters Sam Wilson (another friend of Steve Rogers) and Bucky Barnes are repeatedly referred to as anodd couple.” (Spoiler Alert!!!!! Skip this paragraph if you haven’t seen the show!) Then, in episode one, Bucky discusses getting into online dating, and he mentions seeing tiger photos, which were a trend back in the 2010s where (mostly) men put tiger photos on their Tinder profiles to make them look more “attractive.” So if Bucky has been seeing these photos… that’s a possible hint that he might be LGBTQ+, but the second episode takes home the gold. During an action scene with the morally gray “antagonists,” the Flag Smashers, Sam saved Bucky by grabbing him and flying them into a field of flowers, sending them rolling around in the field with limbs jumbled together and Bucky ultimately landing on top, a la Anakin and Padme from Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. In a later sequence, we see Sam and Bucky undergo “couples’ therapy,” thanks to Bucky’s court-mandated therapist, Dr. Christina Raynor, and the pair gets extremely close while doing a “soul-gazing” exercise meant for couples who are trying to find out “what kind of life they want to build together.” (direct quote, mind you) If I were to remove all names and characters from this scene and told you that two random, unidentified people were experiencing these events above, it’s not hard to believe one would see these scenes in a romantic context. In other words, Marvel is being less subtle. Like, couples’ therapy? 

The now infamous “couples’ therapy” scene in “The Star-Spangled Man,” episode 2 of ‘The Falcon of the Winter Soldier’

I am willing to bet with 99.99% certainty that there will not be anything romantic happening between the two men in the remaining two episodes (I’ll be happy if Marvel proves me wrong). The head writer, Malcolm Spellman, gave a conspicuous non-answer when asked about the tiger photos, telling the fans to “keep watching,” and this highlights the problem Marvel presents. We’re not going to argue on whether or not their queerbaiting is intentional; the issue is that they keep doing it, raising the hopes of LGBTQ+ fans for a queer character on screen, only to have those hopes unrealized and left in the dark. Now, I understand why Marvel is afraid of portraying one of the franchise’s most popular characters as queer: backlash. Because Marvel is such an international franchise, they have to keep in mind their audience and try to market it to as many people as possible, including to countries where anything remotely LGBTQ+ is censored or not even shown. Even with canonically confirmed queer characters, we’re relying solely on cast confirmation and third-party news sites, rather than a big-screen confirmation. Did you know Valkyrie from Thor: Ragnarok is canonically bisexual? Me neither, because I had to find that out from a news article two years after the movie was released. But frankly, this issue is easily solvable. After all, Marvel spent the time to specifically change Steve Roger’s “21st-century to-do list” in The Winter Soldier to cater to different countries’ tastes and popular culture. If Marvel doesn’t want to go all out bringing the pride flags, Marvel can literally insert a teeny bit of dialogue that can be easily edited out so that it won’t cause (major) controversy when releasing it in a specific country that looks down upon same-sex relationships. Is that really too much to ask? Or better yet, if Marvel refuses to explore the possibility of Bucky being canonically queer, then they shouldn’t force him into situations that can be viewed as such. (Again, couples’ therapy??????????) Basically, just don’t queerbait.

LGBTQ+ Marvel fans will get their representation. As previously mentioned, Valkyrie is bisexual, and in the upcoming Thor: Love and Thunder project, it is possible that Valkyrie will be given a female love interest. A character from the upcoming Eternals movie, slated to come out later this year, has a confirmed gay character. Keen Marvel comic fans also know that Billy Maximoff from WandaVision is gay in the comics and has a boyfriend later on when the twins, Tommy (who is bisexual in the comics) and Billy, form the Young Avengers with a few other young heroes. Yet, despite this, Bucky Barnes remains a bigger name, and if he were to join these LGBTQ+ heroes, it would mean the world to a whole lot of people to see a big-name queer superhero on the big screen. As long as Marvel continues to tease but never actually explore Bucky’s potential bisexuality, he will always be known, in part, as the MCU’s longest-lasting display of queerbaiting.